Can Philosopher Alex Tabarrok Bridge the Wonks and Burning Man?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because both right and left are increasingly converging on libertarianism.
By Sanjena Sathian
It’s a TED-style talk, and Alex Tabarrok is just getting going, dressed in DC.-friendly attire (dary gray suit) in front of the usual casual-hip crowd at the Voice & Exit conference in Austin, Texas. Pacing behind on the podium, he flashes images of workers, of wastrel, skeleton-thin immigrants seeking labor. Your heart bleeds as he sings his songs of morality and justice and the need for immigrants in any good society and etc, etc, etc.
His pitch to solve this messy hot topic of the day? Two words: open borders.
Which is exactly how libertarianism 101 would solve it– not surprising given that Tabarrok may be one of the more important, but lesser known, figures in the movement. Sure, Rand Paul gets the headlines, but this 48-year-old economics professor has his own blog, Marginal Revolution, that gets over one million page views a month, and has attracted the attention of the likes of David Brooks as one of the greater philosophical voices around. Whatever he is, he knows how to win an audience… mostly by eliciting cheers with Ayn Rand references. Yeah, we’re convinced, we’ve got a philospher king of modern libertarian zeitgest on our hands.
That’s a good place to be. These days, libertarianism itself isn’t as fringe as it once was. Indeed, even though Paul’s poll numbers are sinking, The Moment he heralded in modern American politics hasn’t yet had its death knell rung: the ideas championed by the anti-governmentalists are increasingly standard everywhere from medical marijuana and gay marriage debates to Silicon Valley’s radical deregulationist philosophy. Tabarrok’s role is to bridge the world of the wonks and the Burning Man sorts alike; it’s nowhere clearer than this scene — he delivers his talk with enthusiasm that brightens the dismal science, dressed in D.C.-friendly attire: a dark gray suit and button down — overdressed among the casual-hip crowd at the fringe libertarian conference Voice & Exit in Austin, Texas. One foot in each world — a powerful stance indeed.
Tabarrok’s opinions, though perhaps utopian (he’s uncompromising), have “always been important” thanks to his intellectual branding, says Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “He’s not a fair-weather libertarian or a fairweather economist.” And his entrée into the immigration foray is not just impactful but also plenty timely. Entering 2016, immigration is sure to be a hot topic — see, par example, the latest Pew numbers in January on the topic, which found Americans damn well divided on the current administration’s policies. Cato’s Nowrasteh says positions like Tabarrok’s no-closed-borders-no-questions-asked are increasingly mainstream. Today, “an entire generation of economists are growing up reading Alex Tabarrok,” says his longtime friend, mentor and collaborator economist Tyler Cowen.
Of course, Tabarrok is probably more likely to occupy a space as a thinking man’s thinker than as a major policy influencer. Public opinion in the U.S. is an obvious limitation, Nowrasteh admits… a pretty big one at that. When asked, Tabarrok doesn’t offer much in terms of the slow policy climb required in the interim en route to radical change, which, you might imagine, could lodge him firmly in the old trouble libertarians have long faced: deeply convinced of the ideology, but lacking a hand in the public debates. Even Cowen tells OZY that even he doesn’t want Tabarrok to “entirely get his way” on all things extreme open borders — Tabarrok’s ideas, he says, don’t account for how much an increase in immigrants would need to be managed.
Born in Canada, Tabarrok’s heritage might make him an unlikely candidate for his political beliefs. But around 13 or 14, he found his way to Ayn Rand (obviously) by way of the rock band Rush’s song “Trees.” Sporting a sharp goatee and wearing a suit after his talk — making him distinctly overdressed among this t-shirted crowd of Burning Man types — Tabarrok calls himself an “obnoxious kid” thanks to that early obsession with Rand. ”I tried to convert people all the time.” The son of a mechanical engineer father and a homemaker mother, dinner table conversations were lively, involving puzzles his father brought home, math questions and moral conundrums — kids would come over in part to philosophize with the family.
Tabarrok took that abiding interest in philosophy to college in Toronto, where he studied politics, philosophy and economics and met his wife… when they co-founded the Ayn Rand club together and launched a newspaper, the Campus Capitalist. Thanks to the latter, he had his first encounter with “political correctness,” he says with a bit of distaste, crossing his arms; it was the Reagan years in the 80s and even in the great white north, there was no shortage of protest against star wars, “capitalism, contras, etc,” he says — students grabbed hundreds of copies of the paper and trashed them, frequently. He also became a research assistant to Cowen, with whom he’s co-authored some of his most ambitious work.
Today finds Tabarrok facing mostly welcoming audiences; here in Austin, a circle of admirers gather around him between conference sessions, seeking some lively political counsel. When home, though, he tries to imitate his good old dad’s dinner table policy: plenty of conversation. With his kids, it’s all about rewarding critical thinking and individual opinions, he says. Unlesss… “unless they’re commies.”
Libby Coleman contributed reporting.